Vanessa L. Ryan Assistant Professor of English, Associate Dean of the Graduate School

Vanessa Ryan is Associate Dean of the Graduate School, specializing in 19th-century British literature and culture.

As Associate Dean of Student Development, she supports graduate student success, enhances excellence in teaching and communication, and supports professional development across Brown's PhD and Master's programs.

Her research and teaching centers on debates over the status of literature and humanistic inquiry in relation to other forms of knowledge. Ryan's book Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel (Johns Hopkins, 2012; corrected version in preparation) examines the pivotal role played by fiction in mid-nineteenth-century debates about the new sciences of the mind. She has published articles on George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur Hugh Clough, G. Bernard Shaw, and Edmund Burke in RES: Review of English Studies, Victorian Poetry, SHAW, The Journal of the History of Ideas, Literature and Medicine, and Critical Inquiry. Before coming to Brown in 2007, Ryan was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. For Spring 2009, she was Research Forum Mellon Foundation Visiting Professor at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. For the last three years, she has been a Fellow at the National Forum for the Future of Liberal Education, an initiative sponsored by the Teagle Foundation, where she was engaged in considering the significance and future of the liberal arts in higher education today. Most recently, she has been awarded a Henry Merritt Wriston Fellowship for 2013-2014. She also coordinated TEDxBrownUniversity: Life, Learning, and Liberal Education in October 2012 and Research Matters! Celebrating Ideas and New Discoveries in September 2014. She began as Associate Dean of the Graduate School in 2014.

Brown Affiliations

Research Areas

scholarly work

Book Review: Gregory Tate, The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830–1870, in Victorian Studies 52 (Winter 2015): 336-338.

“Spencer, Cognition, Fiction,” in Herbert Spencer: Legacies, ed. Mark Francis and Michael Taylor (London: Routledge, 2015), 184-202.

"Living in Duplicate: Victorian Science and Literature Today," A Response to Jonathan Kramnick's "Against Literary Darwinism," Critical Inquiry 38 (Winter 2012): 411-417.

Thinking without Thinking in the Victorian Novel (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012)(corrected version in preparation).

Book Review: Peter Garratt, Victorian Empiricism Self, Knowledge, and Reality in Ruskin, Bain, Lewes, Spencer, and George Eliot, in Victorian Studies 45 (Spring 2012): 525-527.

"Reading the Mind: From George Eliot's Novels to the Psychology of James Sully," Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (October 2009): 615-635.

Book Review: "Revisiting Evolution in 1890s Fiction," Twentieth-Century Literature 55 (Winter 2009): 634-639.

Book Review: "What Novels Do," NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 42.1 (Spring 2009): 145-148.

"'Considering the Alternatives . . .': George Bernard Shaw and the Death of the Intellectual," SHAW: The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 27 (2007): 175-189.

"Fictions of Medical Minds: Victorian Novels and Medical Epistemology," Literature and Medicine 25 (Fall 2006): 277-297.

"Psychology," Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History: A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia, ed. William Kaufman and Heidi Macpherson (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio Publications, 2005), 758-763.

"Why Clough? Why Now?," Victorian Poetry 41 (Winter 2003): 398-406, Special issue: "Whither Victorian Poetry?," ed. Linda Hughes.

"The Unreliable Editor: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and the Art of Biography," RES: Review of English Studies 54 (August 2003): 287-307. Winner of the RES Essay Prize for 2002.

"The Physiological Sublime: Burke's Critique of Reason," Journal of the History of Ideas 63 (April 2001): 265-279.

research overview

Vanessa Ryan has research interests in nineteenth-century British literature and culture, cognitive science and the arts, and theories of knowledge in and outside of the humanities. She is currently serving as Associate Dean of the Graduate School.

research statement

Ryan is the author of Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel (Johns Hopkins, 2012; corrected version in preparation), which examines the pivotal role played by fiction in mid-nineteenth-century debates about the new sciences of the mind.

My book Thinking Without Thinking in the Victorian Novel uncovers a Victorian pre-history of contemporary neural science largely forgotten by cognitive scientists today. In mid to late nineteenth-century Britain some of the most eminent novelists and scientists began to look seriously at nonreasoned thought, specifically what they called "unconscious cerebration." Not only intellectuals like George Henry Lewes and Herbert Spencer, but also novelists like Wilkie Collins and George Eliot were centrally involved in the debates over the nature of the mind and consciousness. Victorian fiction offered sophisticated engagements with intuitive and reflexive mental processes, aspects of the psycho-physiological problem that remain central to neural science today. Scientists and novelists alike argued that fiction, through its writing and its reading, gained special purchase on modes of cognitive experience that resisted the methods of the new psychological science. My book argues that the centrality of fiction in these complex debates demands that we recast our understanding of "consciousness" in the Victorian novel.

In my next project, The Invention of the Intellectual: Edwardian Fictions of Decline , I offer a pre-history of the current debate over the death of the intellectual. This study uncovers the origins in the late nineteenth century and Edwardian period of our idea of the modern intellectual, and our fear at its disappearance. Looking at authors, poets, and social critics including George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, G. K. Chesterton, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, Leslie Stephen, and Lytton Strachey, my project examines the crucial role these writers played in shaping public and literary discussions over intellectual legitimacy and cultural authority both then and now. I consider the debates over the status of the intellectual specifically as a response to the increasing institutionalization and professionalization of science at the end of the nineteenth century.